Cooking for a care home can be a challenge, but Care Catering Cook of the Year 2015 Oliver Smith relishes the moments when he pleases the residents at Wetherby Manor in Yorkshire. Richard McComb reports
Smith, 32, was crowned the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) Care Cook of the Year 2015, impressing the judges with his imaginative take on a pork roast and an unexpected twist on a classic chocolate mousse.
Not only did Smith, like his fellow competitors, have to produce two courses for the princely sum of £1.50 a head - the Yorkshire-based chef actually shaved 1p off the budget - but he also won the praise of his seven-day-a-week clientele at Wetherby Manor care home in West Yorkshire.
You might think elderly residents would be an understanding bunch, but think again.
"Our residents are very particular in what they want and they will certainly let you know if it is not how they want it. There's been many a time I have addressed the whole restaurant with fingers pointing at me," says Smith with good humour.
He adds: "It can be quite daunting, but at the back of your mind you have to remember that food is something they look forward to. If you do get it wrong, they notice and it can affect their day."
Smith recalls an unhappy attempt to seduce Wetherby Manor's taste buds with Asian cooking. "A chicken stir-fry went down really badly," he says. "It was lovely and theâ¨staff enjoyed it, but unfortunately it was a dish the residents weren't used to. They weren't happy about it. One said, 'I wouldn't feedâ¨this to my dog.'
"You have to take on board everything that happens and adapt your menus to keep the residents happy. It doesn't mean that you â¨cannot have a bit of flair here and there and surprise them. That's where this competition has been useful."
Smith, who had never entered a cookery competition before, was talked into entering by the 2013 Care Cook of the Year by Simon Lawrence, the former executive chef at Hadrian Healthcare Group, which runs Wetherby Manor. Once Smith had decided on his menu, the only aspect he changed for the final atâ¨Barking & Dagenham College's Technical Skills Academy was the presentation.
The main course was tenderloin of pork, celeriac purée, triple-cooked crispy potatoes, an apple sauce reduction and diced apple for sharpness. The dish was tested out on â¨Wetherby Manor residents, who were only given a description of the menu after they had tried it. Smith explains: "They would not necessarily have eaten some things I have done with my competition menu if they'd known what they were. They were absolutely bowled over."
Smith used celeriac to give the dish an earthy flavour, but he was also interested in the vegetable's potential health benefits. Celeriac is a good source of vitamin K, which â¨has been linked with helping to combat Alzheimer's disease.
Ticking all the boxes
An interest in superfoods, not least among Smith's regular diners, influenced his dessert choice. A classic chocolate mousse was served with beetroot marshmallows and a deep purple surprise lay inside: a beetroot purée. The flavours worked well together and the vegetable ticked the boxes for healthy eating, with studies suggesting it lowers blood pressure.
"Dark chocolate is earthy and the beetroot is earthy. When you mix them, the beetroot becomes a small back note, which is great for the residents because they aren't put off and they get the health benefits of having the dark chocolate and the beetroot together."
The residents loved the chocolate and beetroot combination. "As harsh as the residents are, they are equally as lovely. They will come and put their arms around you and give youâ¨a kiss when you've done a meal that they really treasure," says the chef.
Smith says the care sector represents a steep learning curve: "Everything has to be cooked in a different way to make the residents happy. We're not talking about the food having to be sloppy or anything like that, which is a common misconception. But they want the vegetables to be cooked so a knife will cut through them with ease.
"It all comes down to how the food eats for them, which is not something you necessarily think about as a chef when you work in restaurants. You think everything gets cooked to a standard that is considered how chefs should cook something."
Smith stresses that cooking for elderly â¨residents can also be a hugely rewarding â¨experience. "When a resident comes up to you and says, 'Thank you so much, you have made my day,' it doesn't get much better than that. That's what makes the job worthwhile."